Photo of a Fire Zouave?

20 05 2009

I received the following email early this morning, and reproduce it here very slightly edited with photos in place of links:

Dear Mr. Smeltzer,

I found your page doing some research on photograph that I recently acquired, and I am wondering if you can help me with it.

I believe, though I am by no means sure, that this is a portrait of a Fire Zouave. I will attach links to scans of the image, a sixth plate (2.5 x 3.5 inches) tintype:

1) The tintype, in its case:


2) A larger scan of the full plate, out of its frame, showing the horn:


3) A close-up of the fire horn and kepi:


4) A reversed scan of the lettering on the horn:


The evidence that he might be a Fire Zouave is as follows:

A) Dark (blue?) pants, which the 11th wore.

B) Red (tinted on the image) fireman’s shirt, with plastron. Also worn by the 11th.

C) The kepi with an oilcloth cover.

Most intriguing — and maddeningly so — is the lettering on the base of the horn. I can make out two S’s, with what looks like an I between them. After the second S, there looks to be either a T or an apostrophe followed by a letter. The I is possibly a numeral 1, in which case it might be “1st”. In any event, I can’t make out what the whole word would be. Probably either a town name or the name of his engine company.

My hypothesis is that this is a new recruit, displaying his two allegiances: to his firefighting unit and to his military unit.

Any help or hunches you might have would be greatly appreciated! As you can imagine, I am dying to get to the bottom on this image….


Gregory Fried

Professor and Chair, Philosophy Department

Suffolk University

 I’m undecided.  The fireman’s shirt this fellow is wearing is a little different from that of Francis Brownell, on display at MNBP – the belt is different too, but I think each fire company had their own:

Francis Brownell Uniform - Courtesy Manassas NBP

It is true that after a few weeks in the field the 11th NY ditched their blue-gray Zouave togs for Union blue, but they kept the red shirts as part of their ensemble.  However, there were other regiments recruited from fire companies that may also have worn the shirts; it’s also possible this photo depicts a soldier in more casual dress.  The horn could be a fire horn, could belong to the subject, or may simply be a photographer’s prop.

I know there are some readers out there who specialize in zouves, and some in portraits and photography, and some in the 11th NY specifically.  What do you all think?



5 responses

21 05 2009
Tom Clemens

Oh but for 1/2 hour of Brian Pohanka!
It is clear he guy was a fireman, and that he was wearing a Civil War era militia-style uniform (Union most likely). Does that make him an 11th NY Fire Zouave? Maybe. I think Mike McAfee is the best judge of this, but I will also refer it to a few others. If you don’t have McAfee’s address I will try to find it.


21 05 2009
Harry Smeltzer


No, I don’t know Mr. McAfee or have his email address. Hope he can help.

I can’t help but notice this guy’s belt buckle. Strangely plain, it almost looks like it’s been altered in the photo.


25 11 2009
Bill Carr

Dear Mr. Fried:

Michael J. McAfee still works at the West Point Museum, or at least he did last year, and you could try witting him there. I am not sure of his current title there. Micheal McAfee is a member of the Company of Military Historians I do not believe he monitors the company’s web site. Try posting the photograph on web sites dedicated to this type of thing. The Company of Military Historians is one you might want to post it on.Anthony Gero is very knowledgeable on New York uniforms of the Civil War. I

Almost all firemen from this period wore uniforms. I see nothing in the photograph to make me think this is a militia uniform. There is no equipment, ammunition pouch, canteen, etc. that would identify the photograph as being military. That type of belt was common for firemen and I believe the horn is in fact a fire hose nozzle. Firemen of this period often wore fire helmets, but kepis were common for fatigue duties and such. Some fore companies ware oilcloth covered kepis instead of fire hats. Is the photograph from New York?

I am from Michiagn, and some of the fire companies in Michigan, functioned as home guard companies during the Civil War. If the shirt was double-breast instead of triple-breasted it would nearly match a known Detroit fire company. I am sure other states had similar uniforms.

Bill Carr


21 09 2010
Michael J. McAfee

I happened upon this question and in my opinion he is just a fireman – no slight intended – in fairly standard garb for the pre-Civil War. there are descriptions in 1861 of fire companies turning out in red shierts, balck pants and glazed caps before they received military uniforms. This is much more likely to be an occupational photograph than a military one. MJM.


2 10 2010
Harry Smeltzer

Thanks Michael!


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